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Wilhelmina Holder: ‘This is why I have a passion now to help Liberia’

Wilhelmina Holder left war-torn Liberia to become a University of Minnesota scholar, a mother to four U graduates, and an advocate for women, girls, immigrants, and refugees. For her next act, she wants to go back to Africa to help the country that assassinated her father.

Wilhelmina Holder in the living room of her family’s Plymouth home.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

“I want this to be a movie,” Wilhelmina Holder told a visitor to her family’s Plymouth home recently. Two hours later, after the visitor had heard Holder’s story and agreed with her aspirations for a cinematic version of her life story, she chuckled, “I want Spielberg.”

Hollywood notwithstanding, Holder’s story is a harrowing, inspiring, and timely tale worthy of a wider audience — especially these days, when President Donald Trump has ordered an end to special legal status for certain immigrants from Holder’s native country, Liberia, many of whose citizens escaped war, poverty, and constant outbreaks of the Ebola virus to come to America and have lived in the United States for decades. 

This afternoon, the 72-year-old Holder tells her story — about how she survived the 1980 assassination of her father, Liberia’s 20th president, President William R. Tolbert, Jr., and came to Minneapolis in 1985 — with a writer’s flair for storytelling, a historian’s memory, an academic’s attention to detail, and an unwavering hope for “truth and reconciliation in Liberia.”

“Liberia is poor, now. People used to travel from all over Africa to come to Liberia,” she lamented.

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“People used to travel from all over Africa to come to Liberia,” parroted Holder’s sing-songy 3-year-old granddaughter, Mia, one of Holder’s nine grandchildren, who spent much of the interview happily traipsing around the living room of the Holder family’s two-story rambler.

“Everything you needed you could get in Liberia,” Holder continued. “Water, sanitation, fruits, and vegetables. But now Liberia is the third poorest country in the world, and everything is corrupt.”

A United States citizen, wife, mother of four, and passionate advocate for spirituality and health, Holder is among the most prominent and accomplished Liberian-Americans living in Minnesota, which boasts the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia, most of whose members live in Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, and Plymouth. 

When the news came last month that many Liberians would be deported under Trump’s discontinuation of Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), a program created in 2006 by the Clinton administration to shelter Liberians from the country’s devastating civil war, Minnesota lawmakers vowed to help out, noting that Liberians make up a large percentage of the workforce in Minnesota’s hospitals and nursing homes.

Wilhelmina Holder with her husband, Burleigh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Wilhelmina Holder with her husband, Burleigh, whose severe beating in a Liberian prison in 1980 left him with partial mobility.

Holder’s reaction to the plight of her fellow Liberians, many of whom stand to be deported April 1, 2019?

“You have a year. Learn a skill,” said Holder, who holds a Master’s of Science in Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota; was awarded a 1997 Bush Medical Fellowship; serves as a fellow with the Refugee/Immigrant Women for Change Coalition; received the Money Magazine Hero Award in 2013 for her support of immigrants; serves as a consultant to the New American Alliance for Development (formerly the African & American Friendship Association for Cooperation & Development); served as a director at Breaking Free and Turning Point; and retired in January from her post as executive director of Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE)

“I’m sorry some of the Liberians haven’t taken advantage of it because many of them could have. Some of them could get relatives to apply for them; some of them could get married to Americans; some of them were able to change their status. Some of them just didn’t bother. They waited until the last minute. Even to ask Trump to extend the DED, they waited until the last month.

“But Trump didn’t extend it. He said he’d give them one year to do it. But during the year, I think Liberians need to get together and decide what they want to do. During the year, some of them can get a profession, a profession that’s needed in Liberia. I want to develop a program where we help them explore options, because over 50 percent of the people here are working as nursing assistants. So if you’re all nursing assistants here, how many people can work in one or two nursing homes in Liberia? Not many, but if you have other ideas, other skills … I want to work with legislators to make it possible for [Liberians] to go for an apprenticeship for the year. If you can be a teacher, Liberia needs teachers like crazy. You can learn to be a teacher in a year. You can use the Internet to study.”

Holder knows the many ins and outs of immigration, certification, education, and employment. As co-founder of the Foreign-Trained Healthcare Professional Re-Certification Program with WISE and NAAD, she oversaw the support and training of more than 250 international medical graduates toward obtaining licensure and integration into Minnesota’s medical workforce.

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“There are all sorts of things we need to think about,” she said. “We need, effectively, everything in Liberia. We need to train people, but it will not happen by itself. You have to have structure, and you have to have some means to make it possible. I have also been trying to, through the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, help immigrant and refugee girls to get the best out of their education by empowering them through culturally appropriate support and services, and to finish high school and go to college.

Liberia-themed publications from the Holder library
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Liberia-themed publications from the Holder library, including books by Wilhelmina’s father and mother.

“Imagine if we trained people in the U.S. as electricians, carpenters, road constructors, farmers and so on. It would be great for them to be prepared to go to Africa. In the past, most Liberians have gotten jobs as nursing assistants. They have low totem jobs. I say to them, ‘Why are you in America, doing just that? Think big!’ I taught my children the same thing. One is a doctor, one is a lawyer, one is a teacher, one is an artist. And they’ve all been to Liberia with me, and they see the necessity. So I can see if I plant a seed, I can see them going on to develop it. But one family can’t do it. All of us have to do it, and this is why I want to see how we can all get together.”

The Holder family home is festooned with Liberian art and furniture, and photos and paintings of family members near and far. Wilhelmina believes her journey to America, and her determination to succeed here, can serve as a model to her fellow Liberians.

“Some of the Liberians came over, and they were supposed to get their visas changed over time,” she said. “Like when I came, I struggled, and I asked people to help me and we were fortunate. This is why I have a passion now to help Liberia. I got my green card. But many other people could have done the same thing. Ask somebody to help, if you want to stay in America.

“For me, I had to stay, because I needed to make sure my children completed their education. I couldn’t have gone home. But now that my children are old and married and I have grandchildren and everything, I’m ready to go home now.”

That journey will be Holder’s fourth back to Liberia since she left for Minnesota on the wings of a Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship in 1985. She’ll be going back to a place that saw the assassination by military coup d’etat of Tolbert, who was president of Liberia from 1971 to 1980. Some say Tolbert was a dictator who practiced nepotism and elitism and left the poor to die. Others say he was a liberal visionary who tried to ensure Liberia’s independence and self-sustainability. 

To Wilhelmina, he was a hero to Liberia, and her father.

“My hope is to try and tell my story, and the story of my father and my country from my perspective,” she said. “Our story has been told by people who know less than I know and people who are biased. If you read Wikipedia, you’d think my father was a monster. But the truth hasn’t been told. Now that I’m 72, I want to tell the story because I want my children’s children’s children, and my community, of course, to know the real story.

“Before [this interview], I’ve only told my story at churches. I begin by saying the 23rd Psalm — ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ I’m under the bed [in April, 1980], locked up in the room, and outside I’m hearing soldiers shooting in the air and I hear my children shouting and screaming and suddenly … silence. Then one of the soldiers enters the house I was in, and he’s walking through the door and screaming, ‘If I find Wilhelmina Holder and (my husband) Burleigh Holder, I will skin them alive and bury them.’ And my heart was just beating under this bed, and at this point I knew that my father was dead. I didn’t know where my mother, my siblings, my husband was. I thought my children were killed.

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“So I took my glasses off and I was just about to ask God to receive my soul when a sudden thought came to me — ‘What if your children are alive?’ — and so I started to pray, ‘Oh Lord, please help me. Save me so I can take care of my children.’ And right then, the soldier was right outside this door that was padlocked, and he said, ‘I’m going to shoot this door right down with my machine gun.’ He told the woman to move aside and she said, ‘Please don’t shoot and destroy my house. The soldiers took over this country not to destroy it but to protect the poor people like me.’ I started praying, and as soon as ‘Father, help me,’ this man said, ‘I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty!’ And the woman screamed, ‘Ice water, ice water!’

“And in the time that it took for her to bring him the ice water, he got confused and moved from the door and goes to every other room and turns every piece of furniture over, and then goes down the steps and shoots up with his machine gun another door. And that was it. That was the second time in two days that God saved my life.

Wilhelmina Holder with a portrait of her father
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Wilhelmina Holder with a portrait of her father, former Liberian President William R. Tolbert, Jr., former Liberian President William R. Tolbert, Jr., who was assassinated in 1980. The portrait is by Wilhelmina and Burleigh’s daughter, Tanaegh Wilhelmina Holder Haddad.

“Two days prior, my father had been assassinated. When he was assassinated, my world came down. But for the grace of God, I was able to run from my home to this village right next to my father’s town and where I was raised. Through this most difficult time I realized the power of God and how he was the one who saved me, and how I must tell of his greatness.

“Because five days later, I was able to be reunited with my kids. We were all alive. I was able to reunite with my siblings, all of them were alive and two were in prison with my mother, who wasn’t killed, and then I found out that my husband was alive, and in prison, too. This was all in one week. God showed me where to go. I would speak to him and he would tell me exactly what to do, and this was amazing. This has never happened to me. As a result of that now, I live my life knowing what can happen if you depend on Him.

“I was 35 years old, and the fellow that helped me was 17, and I never met him before. The house with the family where I was hiding and they literally almost destroyed the house, I never knew them. They were strangers. It was a single mother with seven children, [ages] 17-to-5. They didn’t have to help me, but when I was under the bed, nobody said a word. And after the soldiers left, nobody moved. It was so shocking. I had never experienced something like that in my life.

“I want a movie to be made of this story. It’s amazing, amazing. After that, I got reunited with my family. Of course, it was one thing after another: I lost my job. I was a public health physician. I trained at McGill University, I trained at the London School of Hygiene in tropical health and public health just to work in Liberia, because when I was in the third year of high school, my father asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you finish high school? What are you planning to study?’ Because for him, God was first. We all had to know God, because he was a pastor.

“He loved Liberia, he loved his family. God was first, but another thing was education. He said, ‘Education is the one thing that makes you or breaks you. You need to be educated because then you can make it anywhere in the world.’ So I said, ‘I want to be an interpreter.’ So he asked me, ‘How are you going to help the poor people in Liberia? Nobody speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish; they speak Liberian English.’ And I used to love to take care of the sick and I took care of all my siblings when they were sick, and so I changed my mind and studied medicine.”

She’s been practicing medicine every day since. Most of all she cares for her husband, Burleigh, who was severely beaten while imprisoned in Liberia in 1980, and who uses a wheelchair to get around and a ventilator to help him breathe. And while her primary caretaking mission remains close to home in Minnesota, Liberia is never very far from her thoughts.

“Today, I want to now switch to the international work that I always have wanted to do,” she concluded. “I feel obligated to go back to Liberia and help in development. We want to organize and mobilize Liberians in the African diaspora

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“Everybody here with skills and knowledge, they want to give back to Liberia by helping with education — especially for women and children who had abuse in the war, and who really feel like they have no future. They don’t even have a vision for the future. 

“People need small skills. I’m not talking about big things. The civil war went on for 14 years. Liberia has a whole generation that never went to school. Can you imagine? From birth to 17 years old, no school. So how can we teach them the basic skills, so they can do common things like making jelly, jam, canning juices, doing farming, using technology that makes things that are sustainable and supported—instead of always sending cash. We need apprentices and apprenticeships. Get people who can teach people how to fix beer, who know how to fix shoes, furniture, all these things. How can we go there and teach them how to fish rather than giving them a fish?”